Data Portability Ain't Just A Real Estate Problem

Nov 12, 2007 Michael Wurzer

Google announced OpenSocial a week or so ago and some prominent voices quickly responded with a big yawn, primarily because OpenSocial doesn’t address data portability. Here’s Tim O’Reilly:

This is SO wrong. And it shows a fundamental failure to understand two key principles of Web 2.0:

  • It’s the data, stupid. (Formerly “Data is the Intel Inside”)
  • Small pieces loosely joined.

Let’s start with the first one. If all OpenSocial does is allow developers to port their applications more easily from one social network to another, that’s a big win for the developer, as they get to shop their application to users of every participating social network. But it provides little incremental value to the user, the real target. We don’t want to have the same application on multiple social networks. We want applications that can use data from multiple social networks.

And data mobility is a key to that.

I love that. Data mobility is key. It really doesn’t get any clearer than that: Data mobility is key.

But let’s take a step back for a minute and ask why data mobility is key and what it means. First, data mobility is key so users can make choices in the applications they use. If data is locked into one system, there are no choices. Choice means competition, which begets innovation. No choice, no competition, no innovation.

Second, data mobility requires standards, so that different applications can easily exchange and use the data whether it was created by that application or not. In the social networking business, the data that needs standardizing is pretty straight-forward: your profile, your friends network, and your and your friends activity streams.

Of course, these exact same issues have been and are being confronted by the real estate industry. Interestingly enough, however, the real estate industry is well ahead on the path toward data standards and data mobility with RETS and the now-being-formed Real Estate Standards Organization. (If you’re going to be at the NAR convention in Las Vegas, be sure to stop by the RETS booth.) In contrast, these issues are just now being addressed by the social networking sites, with the momentum going both towards and against data silos like Facebook.

Of course, the same issues folks complain about with regard to MLS silos, are also the complaints being made about social network silos. Who wants to enter their data more than once? How can I get my data out once the data is in the silo? What is the silo going to do with the data once they have it? So, even though the real estate industry supposedly is filled with technologically backwards dinosaurs, the super-hip, hyper-technologically advanced web 2.0 world has created and is now facing the exact same issues as the MLS world, put simply:

How do you aggregate data and make it portable at the same time?

You see, whether it’s in an MLS or a social network, the value is in having the data together or aggregated. Yet, once you aggregate the data, in an MLS system or Facebook or wherever, the immediate question is how you can get it back out to be used elsewhere, by other applications, because choice is desired and the aggregation stifles choice.

This is a non-trivial problem. The ideal answer is in the web itself. As Tim O’Reilly puts it, “Small pieces loosely joined.” Yet the web, in its current form, doesn’t address all the concerns, because yet to be defined are permission or privacy or identity schemes. In other words, who owns the data, who can access it, and what can they do with it when they do access it? The answers to these questions so far have been defined by silos, like MLS systems and social networks, but we’re now seeing that isn’t the long-term answer, rather standards are.

In the real estate space, one part of the solution is to have a broad and deep agreement (standard) on the minimum data necessary to constitute a listing. This is close to reality with the RETS payloads. Equally necessary, however, is a standard for defining who can access the listing and the terms of use for doing so. The first attempts at some terms of use in the real estate space led to the lawsuit against the NAR by the DOJ, which necessarily but unfortunately has caused the conversation to grind to a halt as the status quo is sought to be preserved. But the work on these terms of use needs to continue, either to resolve the litigation or end-run it.

Ideally, the terms of use should be dictated by the owner of the data on an individual basis. Again, “small pieces loosely joined.” Yet the challenge is gaining broad enough agreement to create the aggregation that produces the value in the data in the first instance. One listing, on its own, is nearly worthless. Similarly, in the social networking world, a personal profile without friends is nearly worthless. The aggregation and network is what provides value and in the real estate space, the aggregation needs to be really large; ideally complete, or someone misses out on their dream home.

All of which brings us back to the silo, for that is where the aggregation occurs most easily, at least in the short term. This is why I have recommended a national repository with contributory right of download. If an MLS puts data in, the MLS can take data out, which could make MLSs competitors to each other in a very short period of time using existing technology and infrastructure while also preserving the cooperation necessary to create the aggregation in the first instance.

Our release last week proved to me yet again why competition is necessary. Users who didn’t want to learn the new upgrade or thought that our old system was better were most upset because they didn’t have a choice. Users want and deserve choice. Yet the MLS makes the decision on what system to use for the entire membership. If the data were portable, however, competition and choice would ensue. If users don’t like a system, they can choose another one. Simple.

I left practicing law ten years ago because I wanted to be in business, where supposedly people choose to work together instead of being forced to work together as most often the case in litigation. It’s about time that end users choose their MLS system, too, and I’m going to do whatever I can to make MLS data more portable so that choice abounds. If you’re interested in this, too, visit the RETS booth in Vegas or come to the next meeting in Miami and start participating in the process. A lot is going to be happening in the next several months and years to lay the foundation for the future of real estate, and it all starts with standards.